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The Day the Sky Fell

A year after her leg was nearly sliced off by a plane that crashed on Interstate 680, Danville's Arianna Jiminez is standing tall


Twelve-year-old Arianna Jimenez still finds shards of glass embedded in her arm. The slivers push their way to the surface of her skin, reminding her of the freak accident that changed her life forever.

On April 13, 2004, the Danville girl was riding in a friend’s van on Interstate 680 when a small plane crash-landed on the freeway. In a spray of glass, the plane’s propeller sliced through the van and most of Arianna’s left thigh. She remained conscious and asked a paramedic if she was going to die. He said no. She wasn’t sure whether she believed him or not.

Arianna not only survived, but doctors saved her leg and sent her home after just two weeks at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital. At first she relished returning to her family, but after several days she started to face her new reality. She had to finish sixth grade at home because her leg was so fragile. Four metal rods jutted three inches out of her thigh. Part of her femur had been destroyed in the crash, leaving her left leg three inches shorter than her right.

Arianna slept in her parents’ bed for the first four months, keeping the lights on and the television blaring to distract herself from her frightening memories. Even then, she was constantly exhausted because flashbacks kept her awake at night.

Such simple tasks as showering fatigued her, as she and her mother labored for two hours to carefully maneuver her injured leg in the small shower space.

But Arianna kept trying—and it began to pay off. She discovered tricks for tedious tasks like dressing. She began wearing men’s athletic pants that snap down the leg. Physical therapy two to three times a week and a regimen of 20 daily home exercises began to boost her strength and flexibility.

By the time summer arrived, the wheelchair-bound Arianna was ready to try swimming with her friend. A chlorinated pool was clean enough for the open wounds where the rods protruded from her leg. At first her left leg floated to the surface because the muscles hadn’t recovered enough to swim, but slowly she gained strength, mobility, and speed.

"She’s a strong girl," says Terri Lee, the mother of one of Arianna’s closest friends, Jordyn. "I knew she was getting stronger when she started jumping into the pool feet first. The girls also [pretended to race like dolphins, and Arianna was getting faster."

In July, doctors removed the rods in her leg, and she could finally wear her clothes. Two months later, she was ready to take the next leap: going to Alamo’s Stone Valley Middle School to start seventh grade.

"I loved going back to school," Arianna says. "I loved seeing my friends and not eating alone."

She called her mother, Janeen, three times the first day. Janeen, who had been doing part-time jobs before the accident, stopped working to take care of Arianna during her recovery. "Each time [she called] she told me how great it was to be back," Janeen says.

A few weeks later, Arianna left her wheelchair at home and began using crutches to get around. In December, her doctors said she was ready to put weight on her left foot, which meant she needed her first pair of prosthetic shoes. She picked her black Converse sneakers to be modified with a three-inch sole on the left shoe.

Even though Arianna now savors being back in school and hanging out with friends, the accident has robbed her of some of her childhood innocence. When her 16-year-old brother left the house on a skateboard without a helmet, she called her mother panicked that he was risking his life. "Most kids don’t focus on the ‘what if’ because it seems out of the realm of reality," Janeen says. "But because she’s experienced something so extreme, she sees the danger in everything."

Arianna is unable to participate in some of her favorite activities, like sports. In the next year, she and her parents will decide whether she’ll return to the operating room to try to make her legs the same length.

More surgeries would mean another year of external rods and intense physical therapy, but Arianna seems unfazed by the thought. She plans on walking again without crutches and pursuing an active life. For now, she’s focused on the next step: learning to walk with a cane instead of crutches.

In quiet moments, Arianna still hears the deafening roar of the plane engine and smells the sickening scent of her own blood, but the flashbacks are fading as she makes new memories of each small victory. "I’m really ready to do more surgeries and learn to walk because I’m so ready to get off crutches," she says. "I want to be able to keep up with my friends when we walk and not get attention for being different." n

The Jimenez family has set up a trust fund for Arianna at Scott Valley Bank. Contact the bank’s branches in Walnut Creek (925-944-0180) or Oakland (510-625-0180).

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